The Biggish Year challenge brought me to the windswept shores of Prescott, Ontario last week, twitching and dipping on Barrow’s Goldeneye.
And “what does that translate to in English?” you may well ask.
Twitching is the act of chasing a rare bird, usually far away from your normal birding haunts. The etymology is not entirely certain, but it originated in England, home to probably half of the world’s birders.
Many birders keep a life list of the birds they have seen, but if they have been birding for any significant time they reach a point where no new birds are being added to the list. So when they hear about some rarity they get excited, wondering whether they can afford to chase it. Big British listers (not chunky ones, but birders with big lists) have been known to fly to the Shetlands just to have a chance of seeing a new bird. But given that birds have wings, and therefore aren’t glued to a particular spot there is a strong possibility that they will not see the bird. So until they see it they exist in a state of extreme nervous anxiety – they are “twitchy”. Thus the act of chasing a rare bird has become known as twitching.
All twitchers are birders, but only a small subset of birders are twitchers. Non-birders often make the mistake of referring to all birders as twitchers, but this is wrong and bad. You, gentle reader, now know the correct way to use the word, so I will be watching you to ensure that you do not backslide.
A twitch can only end in two ways: see the bird and add it to your list – “tick” it – or miss seeing the bird, which is known, for reasons lost to civilization, as “dipping”.
I normally avoid twitching because the potential agony of defeat seems to outweigh the thrill of victory. But when I set out on the Biggish Year challenge I knew that I was not going to find 250 birds in Ontario without resorting to some twitching. So when the call went out on the birders’ jungle telegraph that a rare duck had been seen in Prescott I had to check it out.
Barrow’s Goldeneye is a semi-mythical diving duck that breeds on the west coast of North America from Alaska and the Yukon to northern Washington. For reasons best known to ducks a slack handful (two or three) of these creatures appear in Ontario most winters, usually associating with Common Goldeneye, of which we get a fair-sized inundation in the Great Lakes and along the Saint Lawrence River. Cunningly, Barrow’s look a great deal like Common Goldeneye, especially when they are immature birds – the kind most likely to lose their way. Compared to a Common Goldeneye the crown of their head is farther forward, and mature ones have a different shape to the white patch on their face. If you held one in each hand and looked closely you would see the difference.
I should show you a picture at this point, but – spoiler alert – I ain’t got one.
What I did get was four hours of standing in the cold wind peering through my telescope at the 2,000-odd Common Goldeneye bouncing around in the swell, hoping to see a flash of an uncommon one. And gripping my tripod with both hands to keep a bunch of pricy optics from crashing onto the sidewalk. And wiping my eyes so that I could see through the wind-induced tears. And cursing when I left the rain covers off my binoculars and had to mop semi-frozen drops from my nose and eyes out of the eyepieces. And did I mention that they are diving ducks? Which means that the moment you focus on one that looks a little steep-headed it disappears under the waves and eventually pops up somewhere else. So despite a valiant effort I dipped comprehensively. It was little compensation to learn that the Barrow’s made a ten-minute appearance a half a kilometre further downstream before vanishing into the ducky version of the Twilight Zone.
The Moral of this Story
Now if you are bored enough to have made it this far you may be wondering whether there is a point to all of this. Indeed there is, though it may sound a bit like grasping at straws. For all my moaning this was actually a half-decent day out. I did get a good, long look at all the subtle plumage variations of Common Goldeneye. I spent most of the day outside in the fresh air, which comprehensively beats out almost any day that I spent at the office in my former life, staring at a computer screen. And in a fully illogical bit of cognitive bias (the Monte Carlo Fallacy, for those that like such things) I delude myself with the thought that the more time I spend out looking for birds, the more likely I am in the long run to actually see them.
Since you’ve lasted this far, here’s a nice bit of bird porn to enjoy:
And someday that Barrow’s Goldeneye will be mine! he said in half-crazed tones.
19 Feb 2018. Biggish Year total 74 species.